The first rule of The National is to pace yourself.
The second rule is to have a plan.
As a veteran of The National, I had my comfortable shoes, my top loaders, my lists, a bottle of water, cash, and the best of intentions.
But I made a rookie mistake. I stopped at the first table that caught my eye and spent two hours diving through the quarter box.
I picked up plenty of 1977 Topps Hall of Famers, some random Bernie Williams, a Barry Larkin rookie, plus a sprinkling of Derek Jeter cards I didn't know were ever produced. Honestly, they probably should not have been.
Yet that meant I was off of game, falling for the flashy things. I didn't let the show come to me. Suddenly, I realized that the morning session was done and I had accomplished nothing.
No progress on my 1967 set, no significant new All-Star rookies and not a single Dale Murphy card. And somehow, amazingly, nothing vintage, and nothing actual of value. Nothing was crossed off my lists.
So my brother bailed me out. Not with sound advice, but with gum packaged before 9/11.
That's what I needed to remember what The National is about. It is about the random connections and the ridiculous sightings. It's about ogling at things I'll never be able to afford and did not know existed.
So I tasted the gum from 2001 Bowman Heritage and got back in the rhythm. It was either the sugar or the preservatives, but I was back on track.
Time to head to the other side of the room -- the 2500 section, best reached by golf cart or equestrian animal. That's past the grading companies and the manufacturers' booths -- I was far too late for the good Topps redemptions anyway -- and into the far reaches, though not far enough away where I could run the risk of seeing an actual athlete signing his name.
I stop by the focal point of the show - the Heritage Auctions booth. It was housing the best-ever Babe Ruth single-signed ball and the Black Swamp Find. If you've been hiding far from the attic, that's the ridiculous Ohio discovery that remade the E98 market by itself, and drew the hobby some badly needed mainstream press coverage.
This is what it's about -- pure hobby glory.
Honus was there, plus a bunch of Cobbs and a miscut Christy Mathewson. The day was looking brighter, as improbably bright as the fronts of those miniature beauties.
Head cleared, it was time to dig in. I plowed through some piles of 1953 Bowman and 1967 Topps and Diamond Stars. I buy just about nothing, but all seems right again.
My dad just bought something truly weird -- a 1950s batting helmet for Little Leaguers, which resemble reinforced earmuffs. Here's hoping they didn't throw as hard back then.
My brother is busy buying random boxes to break later: 2011 Topps Heritage Minor League, 2003 Bowman, and 2005 Topps Update. I bought some 2007 Topps 52.
Now we're cooking. But time is slipping. I make a sale - some World Series ticket stubs I've had forever. They weren't part of my collection anyway and it made for good walking-around money.
The day was ending already. I buy some Princeton cigarette cards that I don't see very often. And then it's time to head out.
Back in the hotel room, a few box breaks help reset the mood. My 2007 box was lame, but my brother pulled two Bowman Robinson Canos, a Chrome and a game-used relic, not to mention a Chad Billingsley autographed redemption card -- that expired November 30, 2005.
Next is the Heritage auction - at Camden Yards, the closest I'll come to a baseball field this week.
A half million dollars of merchandise flies by within minutes. I'm nervous, and afraid to move my arm, lest it be interpreted as a bid.
But this is the rhythm, even if it took a kid raising an auction paddle for his dad to get into it.
Next time, I'll need a plan. For real.